Usually, the courts consider children above 14 years of age to be sufficiently mature to give an opinion regarding where they would like to live when their parents get divorced. Now, this doesn’t mean the court will actually listen to the child’s opinion, but being 14+ makes it more likely the court will take the child’s opinion into consideration. For example, if it is proved that the parent the child prefers to live with had allowed the child to drive a car without a license, then the courts may decide that this parent may not be capable of protecting the child’s best interests.
How Many States Allow A Child To Have A Say In With Which Parent He/She Wants To Live?
With that said, according to the latest available data, 13 states have yet to pass laws that require the courts to take into account the child’s preference in a child custody case. The remaining states, as well as Washington, D.C., take the maturity level of the child into account before going with his/her preference. Five states consider 14 years to be the age for children to be sufficiently mature, four states consider 12-year-olds as sufficiently mature, while one state (Georgia) considers a child of 11 years as mature enough to make a decision for himself/herself. Other states that have passed the relevant statute related to a child choosing a parent to live with, leave it to the courts to decide on the child’s maturity level.
If the child meets the age requirements, he/she is allowed to file a statement, or testify in court, or meet with a judge personally regarding which parent he/she prefers to live with. The courts then take the best interests of the child into account before ruling on the child’s preference.
What Do The Courts Do To Help The Child Choose A Parent?
In some cases, the courts appoint a social worker/guardian/evaluator to act as a go-between with the child. The social worker or guardian ad litem then prepares a document that reports the child’s preference to the courts. Placing a social worker in between the child and the parents helps avoid unpleasant situations, as in this case the child doesn’t have to communicate his/her preference in front of both the parents.
Typically, the social worker’s document is neutral and objective. Along with the child’s preference, it also contains information about each parent’s relationship with the child, past criminal record, financial condition, mental health, and other factors that are directly linked to the best interests of the child. The courts then reconcile the child’s preference with the parents’ abilities to take care of the child’s best interests before ruling.
Also, in the vast majority of child custody cases, both parents plan and create a custodial arrangement that is usually approved by the courts so long it is in the child’s best interests.
To sum up, ruling on the child’s preference for living with a parent depends on one or more of the following four factors:
- The “sufficiently mature” age specified by the state
- Whether the child is above 14 years of age
- Whether the preferred parent can serve the best interests of the child
- The judge’s discretion